The Man Who Saved the World

The Man Who Saved the World (in 1962) reveals that it was the actions of one man alone which saved the planet from utter destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He was The Man Who Stopped World War III. Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet submariner, died humiliated and outcast, despite single-handedly averting World War Three. For thirteen days in October 1962, the world held its breath as the USSR and the USA stood on the brink of nuclear war in the midst of the Cold War paranoia, when relations between Washington and Moscow had all but collapsed. In America, ordinary people were stockpiling rations and building bomb shelters in their gardens, while in schools children were learning how to shelter under their desks. Then there was a revolution in Cuba, and the tension escalated. Now the USSR had a communist ally sitting right on America’s doorstep. Missiles stationed in Cuba had the ability to annihilate Washington and New York in ten minutes. The only thing stopping sworn enemies the USA and USSR firing on each other was the policy of mutually assured destruction. One torpedo fired by either side would get a mirror response from the other — triggering a shower of destruction that could wipe out human life. Thomas Blanton, the Director of the National Security Archive in the US, explains: “Everybody had a nuke in their pocket. One spark could set it off.” It was in this atmosphere of suspicion and fear that four submarines secretly set sail from Russia. Only a handful of the submariners on board knew that their ships carried nuclear weapons, each with the strength of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The journey to Cuba was fraught with danger. Helicopters, airplanes and battleships were scouring the ocean for Russian subs. The American hunt for the Soviet submarines became a game of cat and mouse — and it wasn’t long before the mouse was spotted. Arkhipov’s sub, B59, was forced to make an emergency dive. As the submariners tried to stay hidden from their American hunters, conditions in the sub deteriorated. For a week they stayed under water, in sweltering 60 degree heat, rationed to just one glass of water a day. Above them, the US navy were “hunting by exhaustion” — trying to force the Soviet sub to come to the surface to recharge its batteries. They had no idea that on board the submarines were weapons capable of destroying the entire American fleet. Gary Slaughter, a signalman on board the USS Cony battleship, said: “We knew they were probably having trouble breathing. It was hot as hell in there, they were miserable, they were cramped together and they had been under great stress for a long time. “Basically what we were trying to do was apply passive torture. Frankly I don’t think we felt any sympathy for them at all. They were the enemy.” The Americans decided to ratchet up the pressure, and dropped warning grenades into the sea. Inside the sub, the Soviet submariners thought they were under attack. Valentin Savitsky, the captain of B59, was convinced the nuclear war had already started. He demanded that the submariners launch their torpedo — and save some of Russia’s pride. In any normal circumstances, Savitsky’s orders would have been followed — and World War 3 would have been unleashed. But Savitsky hadn’t counted on Arkhipov. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the last veto. And although his men were against him, he insisted that they must not fire — and instead surrender to the Americans. It was a humiliating move — but one that saved the world. The Soviet submariners were forced to return to their native Russia, where they were given the opposite of a hero’s welcome. Historian Thomas Blanton explains: “What heroism, what duty, they fulfilled to go halfway across the world and come back, and survive. But in fact, one of the Russian admirals told the submariners; ‘It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.’ Extraordinary.” It took years before the story of what really happened on the B59 sub was discovered — and by then, Arkipov was dead. But to his widow Olga, he was always a hero. She said: “The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.” Documentary PBS Secrets of the Dead 2012. This documentary The Man Who Saved the World (in 1962) needs to be differentiated from a different docudrama on a similar subject also titled The Man Who Saved the World (in 1983) starring Kevin Kostner, Matt Damon, and Robert De Niro.

SEE ALSO:

Countdown to Zero

White Light / Black Rain

The Battle of Chernobyl

Dr. Strangelove

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